Efforts advance to stabilize the schedules of part-time workers

08/16/2014 4:03 PM

08/16/2014 4:16 PM

Dana Wittman wants a more predictable job.

In her part-time job, she can’t tell you when she’ll be at work any given day. One week she gets 20 hours of work, another 35.

“One day it’s 5 p.m. to close, then noon to 6 the next day, and three days later it could be 3 p.m. to 10, or 9 to 5,” said the 37-year-old mother of three, who has worked at a Kansas City area Pizza Hut for a year and a half.

Her variable work schedule is common in restaurants, retail stores, hotels, call centers and delivery services. Employers say labor flexibility is needed in today’s economy to maintain profits.

So aided by computer programs, employers staff up or down to match consumer traffic and other demands. They use software programs named ShiftPlanning, NimbleSchedule, SnapSchedule, TimeTracker, WorkSchedule, WhenToWork, Shiftboard, ZoomShift, ShiftNote and ShiftZen.

Many part-time workers, though they may not pay attention at the time, sign work applications that specifically note they may be required to work varying hours as needed.

But when work hours bounce around, it becomes hard to juggle transportation, child care and personal appointments. It’s also almost impossible to get second part-time jobs to augment incomes.

Thus the now widespread use of “just in time” scheduling is generating efforts, including congressional legislation, to make work hours more predictable.

Just last week, Starbucks moved to ease the strain of variable schedules, announcing that employees will never have to work back-to-back closing and opening shifts. The company, responding to a New York Times report that followed a San Diego worker, also said its stores would post work schedules at least a week in advance and would transfer workers to stores closer to their homes if their commutes took more than an hour.

In Kansas City, Krystal McLemore, a Taco Bell employee for more than two years, said her erratic schedule leaves her no guaranteed time to attend classes, something she’d like to do to get her GED.

“I usually come in at 6 a.m., but sometimes at 8 or 9 or 11,” said the 24-year-old woman. “Then sometimes they send people home early or they ask people to stay longer. I guess I average 29 to 35 hours a week.”

Yum Brands, owner of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, did not respond to requests by The Star for comments about variable scheduling, but Yum and other restaurant companies have responded to previous questions about labor practices by saying their jobs provide opportunities for entry-level workers to gain experience and advance.

‘Schedules that work’

The movement to support “schedules that work” for employees includes a bill by that name, introduced this summer in the U.S. House and Senate, that would let employees request changes to their work schedules “without fear of retaliation,” among other things.

Most business organizations, though, say “schedules that work” won’t work. Opponents say businesses need to be able to quickly adjust staffing as needed. They say it’s too costly to schedule and pay for labor if it’s not needed, and the end result could shave profits and cause layoffs instead of expanding hours.

Attempts to legislate shift scheduling “are creating an issue where one doesn’t exist,” said Bob Bonney, chief executive officer of the Missouri Restaurant Association. “There could be exceptions, but no owner or operator I know arbitrarily or capriciously changes schedules to work a hardship on employees.”

The National Restaurant Association has come out against any such regulations that would cause further complications for operating businesses. The National Retail Federation has pointed out that flexible hours are exactly what attracts some workers to part-time jobs, so part-time flexibility in itself isn’t the problem.

But Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, is blunt about why her organization supports a scheduling law: “Workers need more hours, and they need more predictable hours.”

The issue is affecting more Americans. The number of part-time workers, estimated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at 28 million, is steadily increasing. According to the bureau’s household survey for July, about 1.74 million are working two part-time jobs and about 3.6 million are working at a part-time job in addition to a full-time job.

Job market authorities note that some employers limit jobs to part-time hours because they would be required under the Affordable Care Act to offer health insurance to employees who are considered full time.

Speaking out

As the number of part-timers rise, “we’re seeing more workers speak up about lack of hours, poor wages and bad scheduling,” Gebreselassie said.

That surprises some workplace observers. Often considered replaceable, most part-time workers are afraid to challenge their employers publicly. Since last summer, though, the backing of labor unions, faith groups, economic justice organizations and others has emboldened more employees to speak out, particularly for pay increases, including a boost in the minimum wage, and the right to join a union.

“And, really, what’s the trade-off between a job that gives you two hours a week or no job at all?” Gebreselassie asked, suggesting why some workers dare to come forward.

In addition to pushing for higher pay and schedules that work, worker advocacy groups are promoting laws that require paying workers at least some amount for being on call.

The on-call issue extends beyond hourly workers into the higher echelons of the American workforce. Workers of all stripes are required to be on call in case they’re needed. Proponents of on-call pay argue that being on call limits workers’ freedom to go places and do things, and they should be compensated in some way.

Other related and debated proposals would require employers — if they have a business need to expand employment — to offer more hours to existing part-time workers instead of hiring additional part-timers.

In the vanguard of that effort, voters in SeaTac, Wash., home of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, narrowly approved such a requirement last fall. The measure, already the subject of litigation, covers just a few thousand hospitality and transportation workers whose base wages also were raised to $15 an hour by the initiative.

Federal effort

President Barack Obama in June signed an order giving workers in federal agencies the “right to request” work schedules. San Francisco and Vermont have given similar rights to employees.

Generally, the measures require employers to give consideration to workers’ scheduling requests — but don’t demand that they comply. Even given the fairly toothless requirement, business operators generally oppose any legislative mandates governing schedules.

They dislike the “schedules that work” bill introduced in July by George Miller of California and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, both House Democrats. The bill would require employers to provide “more predictable and stable schedules for employees” in some low-wage jobs.

Govtrack.us, a website that tracks bills in Congress, gives Miller’s bill a 4 percent chance of getting past a House committee and a 2 percent chance of being enacted. (In recent years, about 11 percent of introduced bills have made it through committee, and 3 percent have been enacted.)

A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“A single mom working two jobs should know if her hours are being canceled before she arranges for day care and drives halfway across town to show up at work,” Warren said. “This is about some basic fairness in work scheduling so that both employees and employers have more certainty and can get the job done.”

The bills also would:

Pay covered retail, food service and cleaning workers for at least four hours of work if they report to work as scheduled but are sent home early.

Give those covered workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance and pay them an hour’s worth of pay if their schedules are changed with less than 24 hours’ notice.

Give covered workers an extra hour of pay if they have to work split shifts within a single day.

Bonney, the restaurant association executive, believes the legislation is “mean-spirited and bad for business.”

“The chance of getting anything passed in this Congress is very difficult,” Gebreselassie acknowledged. Still, the federal bill “feeds momentum to state and local campaigns.”

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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